Is Your Stress Healthy or Not?

Is Your Stress Healthy or Not?

Feel stressed from time to time? It may not always be a bad thing.

We know that smoking and distracted driving can seriously hurt our health, but could stress be just as dangerous? Stress rarely feels good, and too much of it over the long haul can dampen your immune system and even contribute to heart disease.

The fact is, in small amounts, stress can actually be the spice of life.

“Having a little bit of stress in your life is important, because it forces us to change and modify and adapt,” says Cesar Figueroa, MD, a psychiatrist at Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon, Georgia. “When you experience stress in response to a problem, it allows you to organize yourself and learn from the experience to become a better person.”

Here’s how you can use stress to amp up your performance—plus ways to tell if you’re getting too much.

How short-term stress can work for you
You don’t need to stress about, well, an occasional burst of short-term stress. The infamous “fight-or-flight” response—that danger-inspired hormone rush that tenses your muscles, raises your blood pressure and spikes your heart rate—also allows you to react quickly and decisively.

“I ask my patients, ‘How else do you think our caveman ancestors survived being chased by saber-toothed tigers?’” says Dr. Figueroa. “If they just chilled out and did deep breathing when confronted with such dangers, none of us would be here today.”

These days, you’re not likely to be fighting off ferocious beasties. In the 21st century, short-term stressors typically come in the form of overdemanding bosses, aggressive drivers on the commute home or electronic devices sending us alerts at all hours of the day.

But there’s a boon to that surge of adrenaline and cortisol you get when an email from your boss hits your inbox labeled “screaming red-alert priority.”

This rush of stress hormones boosts the level of sugar circulating in your bloodstream, giving you a jolt of energy. Meanwhile, your brain’s activity goes into overdrive, drawing more oxygen and glucose from the blood for peak performance. This, in turn, improves your memory and concentration in the short-term, explains Figueroa, which is why you may find that you’re miraculously so productive when you’re up against a rapidly approaching deadline.

Short bursts of stress may also benefit the brain on a cellular level. One 2013 study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that rats exposed to acute but short-lived stress had twice the production of new brain cells in their hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) compared to what was seen when they were under normal conditions.

The most compelling research thus far has been conducted in animals and is not necessarily translatable to the human brain. But further research could pave the way for a more nuanced understanding of how acute stress may benefit brain health.

Why too much stress is bad
Intermittent jolts of stress—whether caused by a semi veering into your lane on the highway or your boss’s last-minute request to rewrite her speech—may increase mental alertness and cognitive performance, helping you rise to the occasion.

But chronic stress is a different ballgame. (Think: a harrowing commute every single day, combined with a boss who routinely hurls crises into your lap, topped off with the other gnawing stressors—marital woes, financial troubles, worries about children and aging parents—that many of us experience, year in and year out.) Too much of that sort of stress over too long a period of time can be harmful.

“Chronic stress becomes bad,” says Figueroa. “You want to be able to turn your stress response on and off, much like a thermostat.”

When stress is left unchecked and unrelieved—when you’re in fight-or-flight mode 24/7—and those stress hormones are constantly churning throughout your body, Figueroa says, they do damage to everything from your heart to your brain cells to your immune system.

Stress can also lead to poor sleep, which over time can lead to anxiety and irritability as well as some chronic health issues. A November 2018 study published in the journal Sleep suggests that fewer Americans are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. For the study, the team collected survey data from nearly 400,000 adults between 18 and 84-years old over the course of 13 years. The rate of short sleep duration was relatively steady between 2004 and 2012. In 2013 however, about 30 percent of those polled reported getting six or fewer hours of sleep each night. That number increased to 33 percent by 2017. Researchers speculate that in addition to increased use of smartphones, tablets and computers, stress related to economic woes and political unrest could be negatively affecting Americans’ sleep .

Consistently logging fewer hours of shuteye has been linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.

An Australian study published in August 2018 in the medical journal Circulation included around 222,000 people over the age of 45 and found that those with a high degree of mental distress had a significantly higher risk of heart attack or stroke.

A separate Swedish study published in June 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who experienced stress-related psychiatric disorders were up to 36 percent more likely to develop an auto-immune disorder later in life—and that likelihood was 46 percent greater for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Assess your stress
You can help determine if your stress is reaching harmful levels by keeping track of day-to-day symptoms such as:

  • Feeling more irritable than normal
  • Having trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Headaches
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious
  • Getting sick with diseases such as colds more easily

If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, and they seem to persist for more than a couple weeks, it may be a sign that stress is straining your body, says Figueroa.

The trackers in the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android) can help you keep tabs on your sleep and stress levels so you can see which way your stress is trending.

How to manage stress
Stress manifests itself in different ways for different people, and there is no one-size-fits-all stress remedy for everyone. That said, you can take the first steps toward keeping stress in check by adopting an overall healthy lifestyle that includes getting plenty of exercise, enough rest and incorporating activities that give you pleasure, like spending time reading or catching up with friends, advises Figueroa. You can also try tips like these:

  • Go for a walking meditation. You probably know that getting regular exercise can help improve your mood and lower stress levels. But the benefits of movement may be even more pronounced when you practice mindfulness—the art of focusing intently and non-judgmentally on your breathing and surroundings—suggests a study published in 2018 in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise.
  • Eat the right foods. When you’re stressed, you may be tempted to reach for comfort foods, but that may be a bad move. A study published in 2014 in the journal Biological Psychiatry looked at 58 middle-aged women who were interviewed about their stress levels the day before being given a high-fat, 930-calorie meal. The researchers found that those women who described one or more stressful events burned 104 fewer calories after the meal, compared to those women who reported not being stressed. The authors suggested that the drop in metabolism and increase in insulin observed in the stressed women could translate into a gain of 11 pounds over the course of a year. If you’re under the gun, reaching instead for a low-cal, low-fat nosh—such as those built around fruits and veggies—may help keep you fueled with less of a hit to your waistline.
  • Get enough sleep. When you’re anxious, it’s hard to conk out, but it creates a vicious cycle: your body compensates by churning out even more stress hormones as a way to keep you awake and alert. It might help to take a look at your sleep hygiene. Try doing a few minutes of yoga or meditation before bed to help you nod off. And stay away from digital devices like your phone or laptop for a couple hours before bed; the blue light they emit can throw of your body’s internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep.

There are times, of course, when the stresses of life—from everyday nuisances to long-term burdens—accumulate and become too much to handle. If you find yourself self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or simply feel too overwhelmed to deal, seek help from a professional. Sharecare’s Find a Doctor tool can help you find a mental health professional in your area. And if you (or a loved one) feel like you’re reaching a breaking point, with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right away.

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